FOXBOROUGH - With training camp set to begin, Patriots fans have filled up the mailbox with a variety of questions.
The main topics are Deion Branch's holdout, the health of players like Rodney Harrison, and what the team might do with its plentiful salary cap space.
A few quick thoughts on the Branch and salary cap topics:
-- I think Branch is currently overvaluing himself. About a month ago, in attempting to determine Branch's market value, I compared statistics with other top-end receivers and thought the figure of about $5 million per year was about right for Branch. One of the Patriots' recent offers, which would have extended Branch through 2009, came in right around that figure over a four-year term. It also had $8 million of bonuses/guarantees to be collected by March of 2007. Considering that offer would seemingly be a start to negotiations, I would have been pretty happy if I was Branch. I would then instruct my agent to try to get $2 million of the money on the back end of the deal turned into an up-front bonus, then sign it. That would be $10 million in bonuses/guarantees, a $5 million per year average, and I'm still hitting free agency in 2010 at age 31 with a chance for another payday. Sounds like a win-win situation from this seat, considering Branch is getting paid one year before unrestricted free agency.
--As for the salary cap space, the Patriots had around $15 million before the signing of their draft picks. The team will definitely use the salary cap space before the year is out. It might come in the form of contract extensions, or redistributing money to lessen cap hits in future years, or for a player acquisition. As mentioned before, Richard Seymour has a $6.6 million option bonus payable later this year and that could be turned into a roster bonus (a $6.6 million cap hit) with his consent. The feeling I get from Patriots headquarters is that cap space is an asset, not a bad thing. As other teams see their space deteriorate, the Patriots will still have flexibility. They're in no rush to use it right now.
Now on to some questions:
What if the Patriots don't want to re-sign Branch, and want him to just play out the contract and go to free agency? How would a holdout affect this scenario?
In this scenario, the Patriots would have to agree that they won't place the franchise tag on Branch, thus guaranteeing him the chance to hit unrestricted free agency in 2007. I think that would end Branch's holdout, but don't see the Patriots agreeing to that.
Didn't the Patriots opt to keep (and pay) Branch in lieu of Givens? Isn't Branch one of the top 10 receivers in the NFL (maybe not a No. 1, but the Patriots' concept doesn't really call for a No. 1 type receiver). Why won't the two parties meet somewhere in the middle and get on with the game?
Harry Berman, Nantasket Beach
As is always the case, it takes two parties to strike a deal. It's a two-way street. I happen to think the Patriots' offer was a solid starting point, and a sign that the team is willing to pay some good money for a top-notch receiver. You don't just throw out $8 million in first-year bonuses a full year before a player hits free agency if you're not serious about signing him. But that offer apparently wasn't too well received in the Branch camp. I'm not sure what the counter-offer was, or if there even was one.
I just read that Jerry Porter wants to be traded. Any chance the Patriots would acquire him?
There's always a chance, but reports indicate Oakland is looking for two first-round picks. I don't see the Patriots paying that price. Another e-mailer, Andy from Royal Oak, Mich., was curious if a Branch-for-Porter trade might be a possibility. From a financial standpoint, the deal would be a good one for the Patriots. But I like Branch better for the Patriots' system.
Now that the Ty Law merry-go-round ride is over, assess the Pats secondary as it is currently constituted heading into camp. Would you describe it as a team strength or weakness and what needs to be done to make it an elite unit? Better yet, does it need to be an elite unit?
Gregg Stephens, Manchester, N.H.
As Bill Belichick often says, everything is tied together on defense, so a secondary is only as good as the front seven in front of it. In other words, without a pass rush, even the most talented secondary is going to have a tough time. Because of that, I think the Patriots' secondary has a head start because the team's front seven is solid. But depth is a concern in the secondary, and there's always the question of whether Rodney Harrison will be ready to go. Right now, I wouldn't call the secondary a strength.
I think a five-year deal for Law was a bit much at his age. As you said weeks ago, having Law in New England it would send the defense over the top, but five years? Ty has always been an on-one-year, injured-the-next anyway, even since the beginning of his career. You figure you tie up that kind of money for one guy and he goes down even two out of five seasons, that's pretty bad. I'm trying to think like the Pats. What do you think? Is this a case of KC falling in love with one guy?
First, I wouldn't categorize Law as an on-one year, injured-the-next type of player. He's been pretty durable over the years, playing in 157 of a possible 176 regular-season games. As for the deal with the Chiefs, while it is technically a five-year package, it's the bonus and guaranteed money that is key. The Chiefs' deal, as I understand it, guarantees Law $8 million. That was more than the Patriots were offering. So it's less about the length of deal and more about the bonuses and guarantees.
Training camp is upon us, and the team is dangerously thin on experience and depth in certain areas. Yet the Patriots' remain silent on the free agent front; their own and others. Ty Law is now out of the picture, and Deion Branch remains unsigned, while the Patriots continue to sit on about $15 million in cap space. If we assume they will allocate approximately $4 million for rookie signings, and will eventually get a deal done for Branch at around $6 million per year, what, if anything, do they plan to do with the remaining $10 million in cap space?
Gerry Stewart, Boston
Some salary cap space will go to an emergency fund for during the season. Some could go to contract extensions for players whose deals expire after 2006, like Asante Samuel, Dan Koppen or Daniel Graham. Some could go to Richard Seymour, who is due a $6.66 million option bonus. Some could go to a player acquisition in a trade. There are always options. The Patriots' feeling is that having salary cap flexibility is never a bad thing, as long as the cap space is used by the end of the year.
Is Maroney going to sign? You know, Robert Kraft has all this money but he is beginning to get a reputation for being cheap. This is ridiculous. Pay these guys already.
I never quite understood the "cheap" label. The Patriots, according to USA Today's salary database, had the seventh highest payroll figure in 2005 at $94.4 million. What I would say is that the team spends judiciously and carefully, and because of that, sometimes loses out because it is reluctant to take a financial risk that might stretch into future years (i.e. Ty Law in Kansas City). Right now, I believe the team's total payroll is in the mid-70s, which is low compared to other clubs. That figure will spike up a bit should Branch come to terms.
Please explain to me what the Pats brass is thinking these days. Letting McGinest and Vinatieri go was bad enough, but losing out on a chance to get Ty Law back is a huge mistake, especially when you have the cap space to get the deal done. Law is a difference maker in the defensive backfield, which is something the Pats lacked last year. Team him up with Hobbs and a healthy Harrison and you have a pretty formidable backfield. Looks like another season of mix and match in the secondary, poor Troy Brown.
Tony, New Milford, Conn.
Certainly agree that Law is a difference maker, and believe he would have put the Patriots' defense over the top. The Patriots' thinking is apparently that the price was too high, and just because the team has salary cap space doesn't mean they should use it recklessly.
Could you give me an update on how Rodney Harrison is doing? Will he be starting for the Pats when the regular season begins?
Greg Miner, Huntersville, N.C.
Wish I had more information on Harrison, but I tend to think he won't be available for the start of the season. Just a hunch based on when his injury occurred and how long it usually takes to recover.
I read a lot of writers outside of the Northeast to get a different perspective on the Pats. I recently read that rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski is concerning the Pats with regards to his approach to the game. He appears to be timid, doesn't appear challenged by the position he finds himself in, and he may not be able to handle the pressure of kicking at this level. What have you seen so far? Are these serious concerns? I know without practicing it is difficult to assess his abilities but do you have any feeling about this at this point? Please don't tell me that they may have to settle on Martin Gramatica. I watched him kick so poorly down here in Florida in crucial situations.
Jim Curley, Seminole, Fla.
I don't believe Gostkowski has done anything to concern the Patriots. I think they've been impressed with his leg strength and want to see more of him in game situations in the preseason. The team's coaching staff, namely Bill Belichick and special teams mentor Brad Seely, don't plan to get into a day-by-day analysis of the kickers throughout training camp. They want to let this thing play out and take as much time as possible.
I saw that you're predicting a backup tackle battle between Brandon Gorin, Wesley Britt, and Ryan O'Callaghan, where only 1 or 2 will be kept. I was under the impression that O'Callaghan projected to the NFL as a guard, which would mean Gorin and Britt at tackle and probably O'Callaghan and Stevenson on the interior (with Mankins or O'Callaghan capable of moving to tackle in a pinch). With Hochstein also included, that would make 10 linemen. So which one loses out?
Mark Zarella, Syracuse, N.Y.
Based on June's minicamp, O'Callaghan was solely at tackle, not guard. Considering that O'Callaghan and Stevenson are both practice-squad eligible, that could factor into the decision. Also, Nick Kaczur's injury situation - he's on the physically unable to perform list - could impact who is kept on the roster on the line. In the end, I think that every player mentioned will be part of the team, whether it's practice squad, injured reserve or the active roster.
With all the talk of contracts and signing bonuses, I'm wondering how an agent's fees fit in. Generally speaking, of course, can you shed some light on how and when an agent gets paid? What's the typical agent's percentage of a signing bonus and of actual contract money? I'd bet that between taxes and the agent's cut, a fourth- or fifth-rounder's signing bonus goes away real fast.
Matt Stone, Wyoming, RI..
Agents generally bill their clients toward the end of the season to collect their cut of players' salaries, after the player has been paid in full. The agents also can bill after certain bonuses in the contract are due. For example, if a player signs a contract with a $5 million signing bonus, it wouldn't be unusual for the agent to bill shortly after the deal is signed. The fee is usually three percent.